PITTSBURGH – Joe Durant is trying desperately to hold onto his old job on the PGA Tour.
If it doesn’t work out, his new gig is looking more promising all the time.
The Champions Tour rookie shot a 6-under 64 Thursday in the first round of the Senior Players Championship, making seven birdies against one bogey to join David Frost and Doug Garwood atop the leaderboard at defenseless Fox Chapel Golf Club.
Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin, Larry Mize, Steve Pate, Olin Browne, Bart Bryant, Peter Fowler and Wes Short Jr. shot 65. Colin Montgomerie, the Senior PGA winner last month, opened with a 5-under 30 on the front nine before fading to a 69.
The 50-year-old Durant, a four-time winner on the main tour, is trying to split time between both circuits this summer. The pressure to earn enough money while making limited PGA Tour starts has been draining. In a way, the 50-and-over tour is allowing him to recharge.
“I’m trying so hard to make magic happen in one week (on the PGA Tour) and it’s just not working out very well,” Durant said.
Durant tied for 31st last week in Connecticut in the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship, a finish he believes should have been higher had he not slogged through the second and third rounds.
“It easily could have been a top-10 week if I had just managed my game a little better Friday and Saturday,” Durant said.
There were no such issues Thursday. Durant holed out from the greenside bunker on the par-3 third, kick-starting his round. He ended it with a sliding left-to-right birdie putt on the par-5 18th for his 64, matching his best round since joining the Champions Tour after turning 50 in April.
“It all comes down to making putts,” Durant said. “If you make putts, the game is real easy. If you’re burning edges, it’s not that easy.”
Frost and Garwood quickly joined Durant atop the leaderboard.
Frustrated after a middling 39th-place finish at the Encompass Championship last week in Illinois, Frost ditched the shafts on his irons for the first time in four years, trading them in for something that offered a little more forgiveness. The move paid off with a near flawless round in which he missed only one fairway and three greens.
“I almost want to kick myself for not (switching shafts) earlier,” Frost said.
Garwood, a two-time All-American during his college career at Fresno State, has finally found a home on the Champions Tour after spending most of his adult life on pro golf’s fringe. He never played in a PGA Tour event and sold insurance among other things before trying to give the 50-and-over circuit a shot last spring.
After some initial struggles, it is paying off handsomely.
Garwood lost a playoff four weeks ago in the Principal Charity Classic and backed it up with a runner-up finish last weekend. Garwood’s round included three straight birdies on Nos. 12-14, including a 35-footer on the par-4 14th. His birdie attempt on the 18th stopped one roll short of giving him the lead.
Being near the lead is becoming familiar territory for Garwood, though he has done his best to downplay his steady rise.
“I’ve always believed the lower the expectation, the easier it is to meet,” he said, laughing. “There’s enough pressure just being out there with all the hoopla. So I just go out and try to shoot my best … trying to shoot 64, it just kind of happens.”
Defending champion Kenny Perry, looking for his fourth major title in the last year, failed to take advantage of the prime scoring conditions. Playing his eighth tournament in nine weeks, Perry shot an even-par 70.
Perry’s score was actually one better than the 71 he posted in the opening round last year. Perry responded last June by shooting a combined 20 under over the final 54 holes to edge Fred Couples and Duffy Waldorf for the first major pro title of his lengthy career.
The 53-year-old Kentuckian, the Tradition winner last month in the first senior major of the year, doubted Fox Chapel would be as generous this time around, but with wide open fairways and damp greens, it wasn’t a fair fight. More than half the 81 players finished at even par or better.
“It’s going to take a lot of birdies this week with the conditions as they are right now,” Durant said. “You’ve just got to keep the hammer down.”